Friday, November 26, 2010

Hari Kunzru on freedom of speech

from Hari Kunzru's "Address to European Writers Parliament 25th November 2010":
The third area of concern for us as writers is the use of language to produce identity. In the European context this is particularly crucial, as the economic crisis is immiserating large numbers of people, who are  - as always in European history - turning towards xenophobia and atavistic nationalism in the hope of identifying an enemy more tangible than global capital.

It seems to me that multiculturalism, once a useful and progressive kind of politics, is no longer functioning as well as it did. The limits of identity politics are becoming clear. Instead of a playful, creative blending of the best of host and migrant cultures, the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries. A liberal politics of absolute inclusivity, while presenting itself as pragmatic, has the disadvantage of obscuring genuine differences and antagonisms. Identity politics, which privileges categories like race and religion, is wilfully silent about class. Culture is, self-evidently, at the heart of this, and so we as writers have a central role to play. It sickens me to watch European bigots puffing up their chests about the values of the Enlightenment, as a badge of their superiority against poor and marginalised immigrant populations. Again, I say that opposition to this Enlightenment fundamentalism, isn’t moral relativism, but an ethical imperative. At this point, respecting difference is important, but so is asserting our common life across borders of race, class and religion. The fake pageantry of respect is no substitute for a genuine internationalism.

There are many weapons in the culture war, but chief among the techniques of policing thought and writing is that of offence. We are familiar with the use of the notion of offense by religious and ethnic minorities to gain identity-political purchase – from the Rushdie fatwa to the Mohammed cartoons, the martialling of sentiments of shame and abused honor have generated a lot of heat and not much light.

I believe that the right to freedom of speech trumps any right to protection from offense, and that it underlies all the other issues I’ve been speaking about. Without freedom of speech, we, as writers, can have very little impact on culture. In saying this, I’m aware that this is a prime example of a concept which has been degraded by the war on terror – that many European muslims misidentify it as a tool of Anglo-Saxon interests, a license to insult them, rather than the sole guarantee of their right to be heard.